Monday, April 3, 2017

Castles and Kings


The Piedmont region of Italy is seldom discussed, except discreetly
and with some reverence. It is the home of the Slow Food Movement (Bra) and ground central for truffles (Alba and Asti). Not to mention the superlative wines of Barbaresco and Barolo. That all being said, there is also a plethera of castles in the area and some incredible landscapes worth tootling around with. Because of the reverence for food and the agricultural richness of the area there are terrific restaurants and markets as well. Being at the foot of the Alps makes for spectacular scenery.
Did I mention the history? Ah! the history. Tucked up in the northwestern pocket of Italy there have been centuries of visitors, conquerors, passers through and settlers. Each decade has left their mark in the charming towns, bridges and castles. You can go see Venice for those things Venetian but this area is still Italy at it's finest without cruise ships and not too many buses.
We stayed at a marvelous castle, Castello de Pavone which was really quite fun. THere are day trips available in the area but to go in the spring or fall is to want to find a corner to tuck yourself away in.
There are several courtyards and winding staircases to halls with armor and tapestries.
The only downside is that the spaces are rented out, with regularity and popularity so there is often a flow of people coming and going from weddings, meetings and the like. THe solution for this I think is to go during the week.
We ate at the castle one night and another had dinner in a funky restaurant in town, filled with locals, which made terrific looking pizza but I had the pasta with seafood which was Great! Bright lights in local restaurants seem to be the norm so don't be fooled if the place of culinary dreams is lit like a grocery store. The better to see your food.
The castle dining was in vaulted rooms with period-ish furniture and plenty of atmosphere. I felt the wooden covered menus were a bit over the top but it was pleasant and the service was good.
Other good castles are scattered in the area. Spain has some excellent castle hotels to check out. There is a fairly comprehensive site -http://castleandpalacehotels.com/index.html. Of course, anywhere in Europe there has been royalty there are probably castles. They were built to last.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Markets

The European Market-

What a perfect way to buy food. Don't stock up once a week, buy fresh, get to know your purveyors and choose superlative local goods. Most markets in Europe are available several times a week and
you can find a neighborhood market open probably every day. Some of the same vendors we saw in different areas so a wander is in order of you are looking for a particular item. Of course, the longer you live there the more you know.

Market stalls offer specialty themes- one will have cheeses, another spices, another meats and so on. There are more prepared foods than there used to be like the beautiful paella that we saw repeatedly. Fresh fish and vegetables are de rigeur and a store that offers bad quality is out of business. I saw nothing that was not wonderfully fresh. Many of the stalls will give you tastes of their cheeses, salamis or bits of pastries. It has caused me more than once to buy what I didn't need. Walking by the strawberries they were so
aromatic I had to get them only to ignore where they were in the bag and come home with jam. Sure smelled good though!

 This is also a good place to buy some home goods, tablecloths to dishtowels and personal clothes. I saw lots of nice sweaters, wraps, home crafted woven tops. The prices vary from very reasonable to tourist or collector come ons.

The colors and textures make markets a photographers dream. The vendors do appreciate it if you ask but sometimes the scene was so perfect and the vendor occupied with a sale I couldn't help myself.
Mornings are the times to visit. Many markets will close at 1:00 and by close I mean pack up and empty the square or the street so completely that often restaurants will spread to the open spaces creating a culinary market of a different sort.


To walk through the market is to feel alive. The sounds of the shoppers, the smells of the foods, everything regales you with the wonder of how lucky we are to walk in a world that offers so much bounty.

Flowers of course are scattered throughout. Some markets, like those in Nice and Amsterdam are justifiably famous for their fresh flowers. Many seem to be imported from Africa. Other, potted varieties seem to be local. It is nice if you are settled for a few days anywhere to bring a  bouquet into your living space.

Because I love photographing markets so much I will include a variety of markets I have loved. Imagine the smells and possibilities!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Provence

Provence has been written of often enough that I will refrain from waxing too poetic on how beautiful it is, how hilltop towns and rich fields of farming contribute to the overall sense that this is a place that is lovingly preserved and tended.
We stayed in Aix en Provence for our base, which proved to be pretty perfect. We could not only wander the town but take feasible day trips to a myriad of spots.

This region is probably best known for it's artists. Paul Cezanne claimed Aix as his own. Regrettably, for Aix, all the fine Cezannes are elsewhere in the world but we found the town to be charming and welcoming.

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment, a third floor walk up which made it a challenge at the end of a day and to bring suitcases up but lots of light, well appointed and plenty of room. The caretaker was most helpful but it was a good lesson to read the rental descriptions carefully and consider your personal challenges. Nights were quite noisy as there was a very popular bar across the street. Small city streets funnel the noise into the only direction they can go- upward and outward. Sleep was a challenge on weekends and we were glad to see the nights the bar closed!

We were near the main promenade Coeurs Mirabeau which has market days, restaurants and one of my favorite fountains ever ( the Piazza Navona in Rome notwithstanding). Everything was walkable and we parked the car not too far away to slip in and out for our day trips.

Wandering into France

It isn't far from the Italian Piedmont to Nice, France. Several hours through vineyard hills and secluded mountain villages got us situated in the hotel and off to the airport to pick up my cousin.

Our next stay was in Vence, outside the city of Nice but very accessible to charming towns, cultural sites and day wanders. On such wander led us to St. Paul de Vence, a walled town with some remarkable galleries, restaurants and substantial photo opportunities. I had had the opportunity to visit some ten years ago and found it mostly the same except for more tourists than ever. I recommend morning strolls or evening and leave the mid days to the busses.
The Foundation Maeght is located on the side of town- a jewel of a museum. The other landmark for culinary hounds would have to be the Colombe D'Or.
A historic and well known restaurant, they have a lovely garden area for dining in the summer months and a stunning dining room with world class art. The artists were often cajoled into swapping their art for the meal, probably could no longer be done. Certainly not by these artists- Calder Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Braque and others. The hotel no longer gets stellar reviews but we had a Delicious lunch, were well treated and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Chicken with morels in a cream sauce, rack of lamb with perfect mashed potatoes made our dinner for the day.
For more information and history of this spot check out their website
http://www.la-colombe-dor.com/indexEN.html
 Wandering the village offered picturesque photo opportunities, interesting galleries, pleasant shops of lavender and souvenirs, and insight to a long running game of petanque. (These fellows also seemed quite comfortable being photographed.) Cats defended their turf from unsuspecting tourist dogs and all was well for the day.








Friday, October 14, 2016

The Italian Piedmone

The long flight across the pond- From Oregon to New York to Milan airport to Milan train station to outer points ....
Often flying into Milan is an attractively affordable way to approach Italy. One takes a train, bus or taxi to the main train station in Milan and can head out from there. Once you buy your ticket, and before getting on the train be sure to have your ticket "verified" in the yellow stamping machines. Board the train and presto, you're on your way.
We followed that route in a recent visit and ended up in Alessandria, chiefly because we did not want to drive a rental car out of Milan, a harrowing way to be introduced to the Italian road.
Regrettably it was a three hour wait for the Alessandria train and we were pretty jet lagged upon arrival. It made for a long day... A nap a dinner and a walk through the night festival, we're good to go-


We headed out of Alessandria the next day to head to Alba, in the truffle/Barolo/Barbaresco region of Italy. delightful impressive country and full of castles, friendly people and great food.
This piedmont area is spectacular in beauty and culinary delight. The dramatic landscapes roll with vineyards and medieval towers. Many of the small towns have culinary events and offer specialties of the region. The white truffle is particularly popular in this area.
We stayed in a Locanda, like an inn, often with food. The rooms were pleasant enough and the location on top of the vineyard hills was spectacular. The chef however had an over inflated view of his cuisine and we did not find it worth the penny pinching teaspoons of his presentations. With a kitchen staff of 7, a dining room staff of 5 and a restaurant that served 25 tops we suspect we were paying many salaries.
Driving in the countryside was a delight. Small roads with eye candy towns and vineyards made wandering a treat and we indulged our culinary desires with lunch rather than dinner
Wines we have enjoyed- Barbaresco, Barolo- became towns centered on
what they do best. Some towns, like Barbaresco were little more than a cluster of homes and of course, several wine stores. The local church has been made into the wine information and sales center, still sporting the angelic ceilings to the Wine Gods.
The towns follow the contours of the hills so in addition to being able to taste your favorite grape, you also get a bit of exercise between glasses. Barolo is a large town with shops, hotels, restaurants and all things wine. The long and rich history of these places weaves the wine story from the ground through the grapes.





The West Coast

It is always interesting to me to see different areas of the world and how distinctive they are from each other. There can be no doubt that the land shapes us besides inspiring us.
The West coast has it's own character of being storm shaped through the millenium creating interesting beaches and rocks. To get seaside  from inland you can pass through vast forests of moss sleeved trees and creeks. Redwoods and ferns create a primeval character to the thick growth. This is old land and thanks to the powers that be wherever it is being preserved in many parks, campsites and walking trails.
There were no people around as we traversed back roads heading west. No animals either, that I could see. I suspect there is enough room for them to avoid human contact. With the craziness of people nowadays who can blame them!
The forests give way to the sea which was stunning. We drove from Pacific City to Depoe Bay, a very small segment of the inevitable beauty that awaits our next visit. At Depoe Bay we were treated to grey whales and seals in the cove under a beautiful sky and a surprisingly good meal. (It was a very ordinary restaurant with a superlative view.




From Maine to Oregon

A wedding called us to the West coast in a long anticipated trip to Oregon's wine country.
The weather was superlative, post harvest, still warm and bright clear days. We understand that this is not always the case.
We went from our Portland affair to the Willamette Valley not far from the city. They specialize in Pinot Noirs and a wide assortment of agricultural products. Many fairs, events and activities take place during the year in this area and I suspect there is no wrong time to visit. Vineyard tasting rooms, local culinary events and beautiful countryside is a draw at any time of the year. We stayed in Yamhill at a Bed and Breakfast that felt more like a guest house. Comfortable enough although a little fussy for our taste. The higher priced room also promised a view of the vineyards which it sort of had a small slice of, over the parking area. The best view was not available from any bedroom but on the deck which was not set up for  leisurely enjoyment. It also ran out of water- a first. "oh yes, it does that sometimes when two people take a shower.." What?
Check your interests carefully before booking a bed and breakfast. Each one has it's own distinct personality. We felt as though we were intruding in someone's house. Some Bed and Breakfasts have a separate private area of the innkeepers. This one was directly in the home. Lots of personal pictures, a television constantly on, etc.
 The location was pretty good though although Yamhill does not have the restaurant availability that other spots- like Carlton do. It is an agricultural area and if you want a rural getaway this may be the spot for you.